The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”


It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.


30 thoughts on “The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”

  1. Right on, Vicki! Thank you for this critical reminder of what could be our goals for our students should we finally get the leadership that supports the beliefs that inspired most of us to become educators. You words are a signing example and an inspiration to stay the course.

  2. Vicki,
    I’ve already pre-ordered “The Teacher You Want to Be” and now that it is October, I am counting the days. I agree that Arne Duncan’s statement is about “shame and unspoken blame” because it you’re not on target someone needs to be doing something else. Requiring all students to be at the “same second grade level” is a continuation of the nightmarish NCLB accountability system that has been so effective! When Michael Fullan talks of engagement, I also think of a return to play for primary students and an introduction of play for MS and HS students. When do they ever get to “play” with concepts instead of constantly being assessed, weighed and found wanting on tasks that are so mind-numbing?

    So interesting that I wrote of beliefs last week: choice, joyful learning, focus on students, focus on volume, sense of urgency. I would definitely rewrite sense of urgency to say that “I cannot waste student (or teacher) time on tasks that are not worthwhile”. Stealing from a Linda Hoyt tweet of a Laura Robb statement, “Ask yourself, “Would I do it outside of school?” If the answer is no, don’t have kids do it. Teach for life, not school.”

    Love you Sunday messages with plenty of thinking time left in the weekend! 🙂

    • Supposedly Albert Einstein once said that “Play was the highest form of research.” Like you, I just wish the as we moved up the grades we could continue to see research as intellectual play as well as let kids play with concepts. Seems like playing around with them would be the best way to not just learn but truly understand them. And as for Sunday blog posts, you have Julieanne to thank for that, as at some point she, too, voiced how good Sunday was for her to read and think. (Also thanks for the sharing the tweets from Lester Laminick’s day. They really resonated!)

    • Thx for the link, Claudia. It’s so interesting to me that we want Finland’s outcomes but we reject so much of what they do. How can we, as a country, be so anti-joy? It’s a mystery to me.

  3. Listen to the musn’ts, child,
    Listen to the don’ts
    Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts,
    Listen to the never haves,
    Then listen close to me —
    Anything can happen, child,
    Anything can be.
    — Shel Silverstein

  4. Hi Vicki – You always share on topics that make me think… and think some more… and then think again. I have been clinging to your words from the last post (honored to be included) on the progression from beliefs to practices to resources… and trying to update my own personal mission statement with regards to coaching into the practices that support my beliefs using resources that answer both – whew!! I have just reached the point of saturation, where the only way I can move forward is to clarify that thinking. When I was in my business career back in my twenties, I was given this advice from a seasoned colleague. He said, “When you find your values in opposition to the organization’s values then it may be time to leave.” As I moved on in my life from business to teaching, I realized that void would continue to be a source of stress unless I removed myself from the environment, or found a way to initiate change within. That’s how I have navigated my way through every employment decision. But now I am trying to figure out a way to carve out a smaller niche, or a smaller community within the organization to embrace, develop and collaborate common beliefs/practices. After all, our kids are counting on us. Thank you, as always, for engaging us in this important conversation. I pre-ordered the book (gorgeous graphics), and I’m looking forward to reading the perspectives of every educator who collaborated on this critical effort.

    • I LOVE the idea of crafting your own personal mission statement! It seems like it would be so useful in determining what’s really important! I also get you about the desire to create/find/embrace a niche or smaller community that’s interested in really thinking about best practice as an outgrowth of beliefs. It’s hard to do in our current climate, but sounds like we each keep finding people who want to do that work, which is great. And BTW, the cover was created by the children at The Opal School in Portland, Oregon, which is a Reggio-inspired public charter K-5 school that does magnificent belief-based work.

      • Thanks for your feedback on the mission statement. I’ll share it when I finish it. I had to create one as a teacher; coaching is similar but different, so we’ll see how it turns out. You’ve written before about the Opal School – sounds AMAZING. Just read a blog the other day that the University of Vermont has a Reggio-inspired school on campus. I’m really intrigued. PS – I am going to use this new book to lead a study group in NJ. Tom Marshall twisted my arm. Maybe we can Skype you in for one of the sessions. Here are the details:

        Session D: Bringing Aligned Values and Actions to Teacher Leadership
        Facilitator: Laurie Pandorf
        Location: Shongum Elementary School, Randolph
        Dates: January 14, January 26, February 2

        How do teachers and teacher leaders bring their vision of what matters in learning to daily practice alongside Common Core Standards? Literacy coach Laurie Pandorf will explore this often overlooked but critical aspect of teacher leadership, and help you discover just how to teach rigorous curriculum while honoring what matters most in how students learn! (Using The Teacher You Want to Be as the resource).

      • LOVE that you’re doing a study group, especially framed around the question you’ve raised, which gets right to the heart of things! And I love the idea of joining you via skype for one of the sessions. I’m in schools on Jan. 14 and 26, but could conceivably join you on Feb. 2, so keep me posted – especially about the time you’ll be meeting as I’ll actually be in Cranford, NJ on Jan. 14 (and just maybe could even be there in person).

  5. Vicki,
    Truer words were never written/spoken. I taught a class this summer about Reader Identity and what was behind those identities were their own belief systems about reading, the teaching of reading and how that impacted how they taught their students. Things happen so quickly that people don’t even have the time to ask, “why”?. And that is what is behind all of of the “shoulding” on one’s self. One “should” but doesn’t ask why and the cycle goes on and on.
    Thank you so much for, as Renee stated, articulating what I think about all of the time!
    Time to twitter this beauty!

    • In the end, it seems to always come down to the why, which has to do with purpose. And too often we ‘train’ people how to do something without considering the why – and not only can that lead to that weird misalignment between practice and beliefs, it’s hard, as a teacher, to truly take ownership of the how if you don’t understand the why! As for the timeliness of this, I think the idea of beliefs must be in the air right now. And maybe it’s another step in the journey to a more learner-centered approach.

  6. Vicki,
    Putting Duncan’s thoughts next to Fullan’s is a stroke of brilliance and says something about what the leadership of our country really thinks of and wants for our children.
    “We” value independent thinking, but our leaders’ actions do little to promote it.
    In practice, they limit educators’ ability (in the public environment) to really teach and as a consequence limit the creation of learners who can really lead. (Hmmm.)

    It’s up to educators and the families of public school children to insist on what we know is best for our young. Thank you, thank you. This is something I will share with families and colleagues. It is a sober reminder of what we must do.

    • Thanks, Julieanne. I gave a presentation at the For the Love of Reading conference in Toronto several months ago, and I thought it would be nice for me to acknowledge that Canada was different – and often times more enlightened – than the US. So I paired these, we have this, you have that pictures, which in addition to Duncan and Fullan included us having Meg Ryan and them having Ryan Gosling, which was fun. And, yes, it’s so—what? hypocritical? puzzling?—that the CCS say that students who are college & career ready are independent, yet how often to we implement practices that actually let them be independent and (a new word I’ve been thinking about) autonomous? Of course, I’ve been reading about your classroom this morning where the kids decided they needed to add two new questions to partner talk: How does this part fit in with the whole and why is this important?” How incredible is that! You didn’t ‘teach’ them to do that, but created the opportunity for them to feel the power of those questions. Brava!

      • I value independence. It is at my core and it’s my struggle as a teacher. How to promote and cultivate independent learning within a framework can be difficult. Even crazy making.

      • Just for the record, I love that you put that struggle out there on your blog. And I love the celebration that struggle led to this week, to kids who need to sit and think because that’s how they work best.

  7. Vicki…this post has been on my mind. Just because I am no longer involved in education does not mean teaching does not continue in my heart and in my mind. And, I love reading what you have to say. As a retiree, it is so easy to be the “Director of my Destiny” (actions aligning with my belief system) as I am living outside the throngs of a system. As determined educators speak on behalf of these very thoughtful beliefs as outlined in the attached link, I can only hope that you and your colleagues will one day be heard.

    • Believe me, Holly, I know that your spirit is still with all of us trying to carve out a different kind of destiny for the teachers and kids we work with. But I have to say the idea of being the Director of My Destiny, sounds really, really wonderful. And I’m sure you’re making the most of it. But love that you pop up in my inbox now and then!

  8. Thank you, Vicki, for such an interesting and thought-provoking post. You have a knack for raising the tough questions! I recently went back to graduate school, and my classmates and I have spent some time thinking about our mission as teachers. We’ve worked on articulating our beliefs and reflecting on our practices to see is they align. After nine years within the education system, as both a classroom teacher and literacy coach, it had been a while! The process has been eye-opening. I appreciate your candidness and the gentle push you give us teachers to think, wonder, and question the (education) world we live in.

    • Thanks, Lindsay. Kathy Collins (who was also on the Reggio trip & has an essay in The Teacher You Want to Be) noted that grad school is sometimes the only place where we really talk about and explore beliefs and our sense of mission. That’s a great thing, but it’s so important to do the next step, which is exactly what you’re doing, seeing how your practices do or don’t support those beliefs. Of course, that process isn’t always easy as it does raise lots of questions. The one I’m currently thinking about (which you can get a glimpse of here: is, Is my work big enough? I confess it’s a question that nags me, but in the best possible way, as I hope some of the questions you and grad school colleagues have raised are.

  9. Hi Vicki,
    So here’s a not-so-revolutionary thought, but a timely one in response to Arne Duncan vs. Michael Fullan. Just last night at a PTA meeting, I was talking to parents about the idea of process vs. product. We live in a product-driven society, but school doesn’t work like that. In math, adults sometimes become so caught up in the answer (the product), but today, we teach toward how to solve the problem (process). The same is true in reading (instead of guessing someone else’s interpretation, creating our own) and writing (we all get this one!) In this statement, Duncan shows that he values product (even if it’s at the ripe old age of 7), while the educator’s educator Michael Fullan writes that he values process.
    No further questions. 🙂

    • There must be something in the air—or a zeitgeist kind of thing—that so many of us are thinking about beliefs and the importance of process right now. And you’re dead-on that those quotes also speaking to different beliefs about the primacy of process and products. Of course, I’m really curious to know what the parents thought. Did any of them wind up thinking that they may have a disconnect between what they really believe their kids need (process) and what they more visible value (product)?

      • Actually, the parents were thankful that we are talking about this. They, like all of us, are overwhelmed by Common Core and all its demands. They’re so glad that we’re giving their kids permission to just learn.

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